It must have seemed a clever Johnsonian ruse. Build a deep coalmine – the first in decades – in Labour’s historical heartland and put yourself on the side of working-class northern voters who want jobs and against environmentalists who, one could slyly suggest, prefer saving the planet than local communities. Boris Johnson thought, no doubt, with a cunning that has wrongfooted many opponents, that he could frame the argument in such terms and still meet his “net zero” targets because the vast majority of Cumbrian coal would end up for export rather than domestic use (it’s too sulphurous to be used to make steel in Britain). The result is that the greenhouse gas emissions would end up on some other nation’s books when carbon budgets were calculated. Not dissimilar to his view of cake, Mr Johnson was saying that his policy on coal is “pro having it and pro heating it”.
The problem for Mr Johnson was that the Biden administration was having none of it. The US had the good sense to understand the implications if Britain was allowed to press ahead with a plan to dig out coal and send it abroad without busting its own carbon budget. If everyone took the same view, the world would be toast. The US reasons that if jobs are the issue, then use state investment in green technologies for coal-free steel. Within days of John Kerry, the US climate envoy, warning Mr Johnson that coal has no future, the government conceded it would be “calling in” the planning application for the Cumbrian mine. Importantly Mr Johnson would not be shamed into a U-turn in the run-up to the UN’s Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in November.
The climate emergency is a real threat: the UN calculates that greenhouse gas emissions must drop by 45% in the next decade to limit global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Yet mini-me Mr Johnsons keep popping up in positions of power. On Friday Mathias Cormann, an Australian rightwing coal-loving politician, was announced as the new secretary general for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Mr Cormann should not have been allowed anywhere near the job. He had labelled 2050 net zero targets as “extremist … reckless and irresponsible” and in office abolished a carbon pricing scheme that had driven cuts in emissions. That Mr Cormann was elected by consensus is an indictment of the process. It speaks to the OECD’s concern about the rise of China, which Australia has butted heads with recently – to Mr Cormann’s benefit.
The OECD is where the rich world sits down to shape the global economic agenda – by getting its laggards to strive for the outcomes that its most successful members achieve. The organisation’s secretary general is a powerful figure with access to G20 leaders. The OECD has a pivotal climate role as richer nations have to decarbonise first. They are responsible for the largest atmospheric stock of carbon dioxide, and have the financial as well as technological expertise to deal with it.
Climate policy by rightwingers down under amounts to following a rabbit into the hole and hoping to emerge in Wonderland. Mr Cormann’s appointment is likely to be in exchange for Australia to announce its own net zero target for greenhouse emissions. This realpolitik exposes Conservatism as being engaged not with climate policy, but in a search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
Like Mr Johnson, Australian rightwingers pay lip service to environmental issues – Mr Cormann had the chutzpah to put climate at the heart of his job application – while peddling greenwash policies and state-shrinking economics. This kind of politics, which unfortunately dominates today, paves the road to perdition. If all the national pledges submitted to the UN so far were met, emissions would be reduced by only 1% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels. Mr Biden is talking sense when he offers a transformative fiscal and regulatory agenda to showcase the positive role of the state geared toward the creation of well-paid jobs and limiting catastrophic environmental damage. The world ought to listen.